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Negligence - Duty Of Care

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Before 1932 there was no generalised duty of care in negligence. The tort did exist and was applied in particular situations where the courts had decided that a duty should be owed, eg, road accidents, bailments or dangerous goods. In Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, Lord Atkin attempted to lay down a general principle which would cover all the circumstances where the courts had already held that there could be liability for negligence. He said:

"The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer's question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be - persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question."

This test has been criticised as being too wide but it made it easier for lawyers to argue that there should be liability for negligently causing harm in new situations, not previously covered by case law. In 1970, Lord Reid said that Lord Atkin's dictum ought to apply unless there was some justification or valid explanation for its exclusion (Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co [1970] AC 1004).

In Anns v Merton LBC [1977] 2 All ER 492, the House of Lords confirmed this. Lord Wilberforce stated that:

"in order to establish that a duty of care arises in a particular situation, it is not necessary to bring the facts of that situation within those of previous situations in which a duty of care has been held to exist. Rather the question has to be approached in two stages. First one has to ask whether, as between the alleged wrongdoer and the person who has suffered damage there is a sufficient relationship of proximity or neighbourhood such that, in the reasonable contemplation of the former, carelessness on his part may be likely to cause damage to the latter - in which case a prima facie duty of care arises. Secondly, if the first question is answered affirmatively, it is necessary to consider whether there are any considerations which ought to negative, or to reduce or limit the scope of the duty or the class of person to whom it is owed or the damages to which a breach of it may give rise."

The appellate courts began applying this test but the House of Lords then began retreating from the implications of the Wilberforce test. Comments were made in the following cases: Peabody Donation Fund v Sir Lindsay Parkinson [1984] 3 All ER 529, per Lord Keith; Leigh & Sillavan Ltd v Aliakmon Shipping [1986] 2 All ER 145, per Lord Brandon; Curran v NI Co-ownership Housing [1987] 2 All ER 13, per Lord Bridge; Yuen Kun-yeu v AG of Hong Kong [1987] 2 All ER 705, per Lord Keith.

In Rowling v Takaro Properties [1988] 1 All ER 163, Lord Keith explained that there was a fear that a too literal application of the Wilberforce test could produce a failure to have regard to, and to analyse and weigh, all the relevant considerations when deciding whether to impose a duty of care. Indeed, Lord Templeman, in CBS Songs v Amstrad [1988] 2 All ER 484, commented that since Anns 'put the floodgates on the jar, a fashionable plaintiff alleges negligence. The pleading assumes that we are all neighbours now, Pharisees and Samaritans alike, that foreseeability is a reflection of hindsight and that for every mischance in an accident-prone world someone solvent must be liable in damages.'

Today, the requirements that must be satisfied before a duty of care is held to exist were laid down by Lord Bridge in Caparo Industries v Dickman [1990] 1 All ER 568:

"What emerges is that, in addition to the foreseeability of damage, necessary ingredients in any situation giving rise to a duty of care are that there should exist between the party owing the duty and the party to whom it is owed a relationship characterised by the law as one of 'proximity' or 'neighbourhood' and that the situation should be one in which the court considers it fair, just and reasonable that the law should impose a duty of a given scope upon the one party for the benefit of the other."

Therefore, there must be: (a) foreseeability of the damage; (b) a sufficiently 'proximate' relationship between the parties; and (c) it must be fair, just and reasonable to impose such a duty.

Foreseeability and proximity

'Foreseeability' means whether a hypothetical 'reasonable person' would have foreseen damage in the circumstances.

'Proximity' is shorthand for Lord Atkin's neighbour principle. It means that there must be legal proximity, i.e. a legal relationship between the parties from which the law will attribute a duty of care.

Note that a duty of care may not be owed to a particular claimant, if the claimant was unforeseeable. See:

Bourhill v Young [1942] 2 All ER 396.

The role of policy

Policy is shorthand for 'public policy considerations'. Policy considerations were recognised in the Wilberforce test and the test in Caparo v Dickman.

Arguments that an extension of liability for negligence would lead to a flood of litigation or to fraudulent claims were once granted greater credence than they are today. But other arguments, such as the possible commercial or financial consequences, the prospect of indeterminate liability, the possibility of risk-spreading (e.g., through insurance) and potential conflicts with rights in property or other social or moral values, are given due consideration. In recent years the courts have identified a wide range of factors that may be relevant to the denial of a duty of care. For example, a duty of care may not exist where:

(a) The claimant is the author of his own misfortune (Philcox v Civil Aviation Authority, The Times, 8 June 1995).

(b) A duty of care would lead to unduly defensive practices by defendants seeking to avoid claims for negligence with detrimental effects on their performance of some public duty (Hill v CC of West Yorkshire [1988] 2 All ER 238, and X (minors) v Bedfordshire CC [1995] 3 All ER 353).




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